Richard Widmark made an indelible screen debut in 1947 as a giggling, sadistic killer and later brought a sense of urban cynicism and unpredictability to his roles as a leading man.
Equally believable playing heavies and heroes, Widmark portrayed a broad range of characters in a film career that spanned more than 70 theatrical and television movies from the late 1940s to the early '90s.
He played a rabid racist in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "No Way Out" (1950), an obsessed prosecutor in Stanley Kramer's "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961), an authoritarian Navy destroyer captain during the Cold War in James B. Harris' "The Bedford Incident" (1965) and a tough New York police detective in Don Siegel's "Madigan" (1968).
The lean and rugged Widmark, who director Samuel Fuller once said "walks and talks like no one else," was known to be equally at home astride a horse — in films such as William Wellman's "Yellow Sky," John Ford's "Cheyenne Autumn" and "Two Rode Together," John Wayne's "The Alamo" and the star-studded epic "How the West Was Won."
But it's as Tommy Udo, the sadistic New York gangster in Henry Hathaway's 1947 film noir classic, "Kiss of Death," that Widmark made what may be his most enduring on-screen impression.
"Kiss of Death" starred Victor Mature as a small-time crook and family man who reluctantly informs on his ex-partners to gain parole from prison. But Widmark stole the show as the revengeful Udo, who gleefully ties up an older woman in her wheelchair with a lamp cord and then pushes her down a flight of stairs.
The chilling performance prompted film critic James Agee to write of Widmark's character: "It is clear that murder is one of the kindest things he is capable of."
In 1943, he made his Broadway debut playing a young Army lieutenant in the comedy "Kiss and Tell." Roles in other Broadway plays followed, along with his continuing work in radio.
Widmark played so many heavies early in his screen career that audiences had difficulty separating the man from the despicable characters he portrayed.
Although trying to avoid playing more low-life villains, Widmark was offered what he once called "this terrible, awful racist character" in "No Way Out," the 1950 film that marked the big-screen debut of Sidney Poitier as a doctor in a county hospital who must deal with Widmark's character. Widmark later said he would apologize after almost every scene they had together for the bigoted lines he had to deliver.
Among the films he produced and starred in were "Time Limit" (1957), directed by Karl Malden; and "The Secret Ways" (1961), a Cold War thriller with a script written by Widmark's wife, Jean.
One of his biggest hits came in 1968 when he played the title role in the New York cop story "Madigan." In 1972, Widmark reprised the role in a TV series of the same name that ran on NBC for a year.
He continued to show up in films such as "Murder on the Orient Express," "Rollercoaster," "Coma" and "The Swarm," but his stardom began to wane.
In the 1980s, he worked periodically in films and television, including "Against All Odds" on the big screen in 1984 and "Cold Sassy Tree," a 1989 television movie in which he starred opposite Faye Dunaway as a man who married a younger woman.
In 1991, he made his final screen appearance, as a senator in "True Colors."
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